Giving and Receiving Better Feedback In the Design Process

Ben Groulx
Oct 17, 2014
Giving and Receiving Better Feedback In the Design Process

I've often had heard that design can seem like dark magic: the designer will collect various bits of information, then say goodbye for three weeks before reappearing with magically-made design. Almost like an art commission. From the client's perspective, design deliverables are this mysterious entity.

But design isn't dark magic.

What is design?

Design is nothing more than a series of decisions made to try and resolve a certain set of problems.

You can't not be designing, as every settlement and conclusion is design. Every time you make a decision, you are designing. And anyone is capable of designing because everyone has the ability to make decisions. (Perhaps some more aptly than others.)

When clients work with trained design professionals, what they are really looking for is someone to guide them through their own business objectives and help them uncover potential solutions that may have been overlooked, dismissed, or misaddressed.

A designer will be able to make suggestions about visual aspects, such as colour and typography, because they are trained to understand how those things affect emotion, readability, and how they affect the overall experience. But the client will be able to provide insight into the goals and objectives the project needs to hit.

As I'm constantly saying to clients: "We know design, but you know your business."

Which brings us back to design being "dark magic:" how can a designer make any decision without understanding the business at each turn and addressing the aspects that aren't good enough?

Fitting feedback into the design process

The creative process is a messy one; it's not linear, where things can happily fall into place in a direct, non-deviating way. It changes and evolves as problems get resolved and new obstacles emerge.

Design Process: Linear

Design Process: Non-linear

Design is not a linear process, but one with many advances and regressions.

But I'll go so far to say that most design isn't so much creative as it is analytical. The "creative" part of designing comes into play when a complex answer needs an original solution and an imaginative implementation. But to get to that point it requires a plethora of research and questioning. It can be easy to jump straight to putting things together in Photoshop and playing around with aesthetics. But if a client isn't contributing, you're likely to miss the objective.

Design process without feedback

Designing without feedback often leads to missed goals.

Every time clients can give feedback, the project gets refocused and comes closer to achieving business goals. Without feedback, the chance for failure is highly probable.

Design process with feedback

At each point of feedback, the project is refocused and come closer to hitting its objectives.

So when exactly is a good time for feedback? As early as possible.

It is never too early for clients to jump in and offer critique. Working through rough patches helps everyone establish direction and refocus. Even if work isn't finished. It can be intimidating showing incomplete work, but that is an emotion that must be stomped out and pushed past. (See Don't conflate design with the designer below.) In fact, seeing incomplete work can be a positive thing. "Show your work!" my math teacher always said.

Giving good feedback

It is the responsibility of the designer to frame how feedback should be delivered and in what context. This can be done by in five steps:

  1. Recapping: Where has the project been, and what got us to this point? What is the history of the project? Taking a look back and going through each of the smaller processes as part of the greater whole will help make decisions about the current state. Talk about previous feedback, how that was addressed, in order to give confidence that whatever comments come out of this feedback session can also be fixed.
  2. Explaining: "This is a red button." Yes, but why is it red? Everyone is able to see what is presented in front of them, but understanding why things are the way they are is the important thing.
  3. Framing: You don't need to know anything about design to provide feedback! Don't be afraid or embarrassed to speak your mind. Everything will be gone through and talked about in more detail. But even understanding what to look for is key. Designers, it's important to contextualize what something "good" is. Once clients have an understanding of what it is they are looking at, and how it aims to achieve their goals, they can better provide feedback as to how well you are meeting those goals.
  4. Directing: What sort of feedback is to be expected? What are the points worth discussing, and what sorts of comments about those points are required? Designers need to be explicit in the type of feedback they need, and where it is required.

During feedback, it is important to remember that not everything is going to be perfect. It's even better if it isn't as then we have something to work towards and fix. If there is something broken, speak up! How can a designer fix something if they don't know what it is? Providing negative feedback - pointing out things that aren't working - is better than positive feedback because it provides an actionable request, giving designers a tangible entity to work on.

Some more things to keep in mind about providing feedback…

  • Personal preference has no place in feedback. Unless this is a personal project, try as much as possible not to bring in your own tastes, preferences, and judgements. Think about what works best for the brand and for your users, not what works best for you.
  • Feedback should not be subjective as it isn't art. Design is targeted. Do you understand what was attempted? Design is not art, even though it can be aesthetically pleasing at times. Instead of asking, "Do I like this?" ask, "Does this meet my objectives?" If the answer is yes, wonderful. Find the things that aren't working, and try and figure out (if you can) what about them aren't sitting right.
  • Honesty is important. Clients, you are paying for a service with your hard-earned dollars, and designers, you aren't getting emotionally attached to your work. Be blunt. Even if you can't pinpoint exactly what it is you don't like, at least "This is terrible" is better than "Well, hmm… I dunno." Hopefully the designer will have framed things properly so you can say why, but if not, at least knowing something isn't working is good enough to begin the conversation.

Don't conflate design with the designer

Designers, repeat after me: "I am not my work." When a client says they find the that the colours fall flat and are uninspired, it doesn't mean you are flat and uninspired. You already have enough on your plate by tackling big objective problems; insecurity. Hoist up your pants and listen. Listen, and determine what makes the colours flat and uninspired.

Clients, repeat after me: "I'm working towards a goal, not a look." Always keep your business objectives in mind when pushing forward. You might not like the colour orange, but if it is a contrasting colour used on your call-to-actions and it converts well, push forward.

Get feedback now

Design is not a dark art, nor is it magic. It's a process that follows a logical decision-making path. Feedback is an important part of all design projects, and can make or break it. It builds trust, and allows clients to see the process and understand why their project is the way it is. So go get some feedback right now. What do you have to lose?

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